April 24, 2014

MEDIA COMMENT: Seeking media independence

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:34 pm by yisraelmedad

Media Comment: Seeking media independence


The major success the media in Israel have achieved is the stifling of the type of wide-open criticism the media is accorded in other western democratic countries.

Israel will be marking its 66th Independence Day shortly. As we have witnessed over the decades, Jewish independence has been achieved in remarkable fashion in military, political, commercial and scientific endeavors.

We would argue though that even with Oscars and other recognition that goes with literary prizes, our cultural and artistic achievements could aspire to more Zionist and Jewish content, not to mention values. And as for our media? It has been noted, half-facetiously but more than half-seriously, that there are only two professions dealing with life-threatening situations that do not require a diploma, license or certificate: parenting and journalism.

And that situation is quite unfortunate because the media not only is itself an important element in our social and political fabric, but is also of an all-pervasive character.

Journalists as well as other central media persons including program producers, editors and interviewers, seem to promote two different narratives. The first is that they are the most crucial and essential element for the preservation of democracy. In addition, so they claim, they are the most reliable and responsible agents of government oversight. It is the media that protects the public from the excesses of politicians, magnates and others who possess extensive powers.

The trouble is that the media itself can become smug, self-contained and isolated. Power, we know, corrupts. As Leon Weiseltier of The New Republic recently wrote: “Since an open society stands or falls on the quality of its citizens’ opinions, the refinement of their opinions… the process of opinion-formation is a primary activity of its intellectuals and its journalists.” Too many incidents here in Israel point to professional ethical infractions as a regular, rather than the exceptional, phenomenon. In fact, the media is a profession that is the object of an ever-increasing level of criticism, here and abroad.

Giles Coren, Jewish-born and British, has recently attacked the fraternity of journalists in The London Times, calling them “the least well-read people you will ever meet” and adding that “their ability with words does not develop over time.” As for columnists, their “deep-writing” skills, he said, had “gone the same way as their ‘deep-reading’ ones.”

Too many of Israel’s media commentators and “experts” can be similarly categorized. One must realize that the situation in Israel is bad.

The progressive leftist Melissa Bell of the “explanatory news site” Vox.com is unembarrassed to note that, “We [the media industry] present the news in a way that puts forward the newest information, not the most important information.” What Vox does is to supply “cards” that provide “context” and “explanation” of key concepts, a system that has drawn accusations of peddling left-wing propaganda and lack of diversity.

New digital tools entering the field also make it easier for the news to be unethically reported. There’s a new and sophisticated technology facilitating bias in the media.

The major success the media in Israel have achieved is the stifling of the type of wide-open criticism the media is accorded in other western democratic countries. In enlightened countries, media criticism is not treated as subversive or fascist.

Another characteristic of Israel’s media may be summed up using a quote from Nate Silver of the new FiveThirtyEight: “Plenty of pundits have really high IQs but they don’t have any discipline in how they look at the world… [they] pull threads together from very weak evidence and draw grand conclusions from them… They’re just spitting out the same column every week.”

Media consumers need to realize that news today is being marketed, not presented. In too many instances, the news is subjected to a filtering process which distorts the actual facts. For example, Jewish Temple Mount activists, seeking an increased Jewish presence at the holy site, orchestrated a simulation of the Paschal Sacrifice a week ago Thursday. In a second event on the eve of the holiday, five persons were detained by police at the Dung Gate for attempting to bring a goat kid to the Temple Mount to be sacrificed. As in years past, the media’s treatment of the incidents ranged from benign neglect to denigration.

On the other hand, the Samaritan rite at Mount Gerizim, as part of which many lambs are slaughtered, skinned and placed over open-air pits to be roasted, with, at times, hundreds of onlookers in a semi-carnival atmosphere, is treated as a tourist attraction. Our media encourage people to attend. One report – the Paschal offering – is spun in the negative while the other – the Samaritan rite – is described positively, even though the actual acts are almost exactly the same. Actually, there is much more blood at Mount Gerizim.

A fifth element is the realization that even our public broadcasting networks are commercial. Their employees are concerned as much about money as about doing their job. And sometimes, even more so.

Workers’ unions of course have a legal right and a moral obligation to defend job security. In democratic societies, this includes going on strike, setting up a picket-line and purchasing ads. In Israel, the employees of the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), under threat of closure and reorganization (a situation we addressed in our “Do we need public broadcasting” April 17 article), exploit their employment advantage on the public’s account.

As even The Seventh Eye website of the Israel Democracy Institute noted, the Tuesday evening Politika program devoted almost 40 minutes of it 90-minute slot on Channel One TV to the closure proposal. Oded Shachar moderated, Avi Ratzon, who is employed by the IBA in its sports division, railed against Communication Minister Gilad Erdan “throwing 2,000 employees into the street.”

Two other participants were senior IBA directors Miki Miro and Yair Koren. Two Knesset Members who supported the workers were panelists.

There were, to be fair, two who sympathized with the minister’s position, although their public profiles, and thus their standing in the mind of the viewers, were unequal to those of the others. The bottom line – 40 minutes of pro-IBA employee propaganda instead of public programming.

The Passover holiday is an occasion when Israelis take vacations, visit our beautiful natural areas, and take children to shows and shores. Tens of thousands visited tourist sites in Judea and Samaria and, in Hebron especially, multitudes came to the Cave of the Patriarchs and attended the all-day program there. As usual, the central news television broadcasts ignored or downplayed the number of participants.

This situation needs to be remedied. We want to be clear: we are not advocating the sort of aggressive treatment the American network NBC saw fit to employ in dealing with its Meet the Press host David Gregory, whose ratings have slid. It was reported this week that a “psychological consultant” was hired to work with him.

Nevertheless, we believe that professional intervention should be used to address some of Israel’s media woes.

Arguably the most important external steps would be aimed at assuring that the networks adhere to their own ethical codes, as well as to the law.


April 18, 2014

MEDIA COMMENT: Do we need public broadcasting?

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:09 am by yisraelmedad

Media comment: Do we need public broadcasting?


Israel surely does not need a post-Zionist public broadcaster. It needs a Zionist, public-service oriented broadcaster, one that understands and caters to the needs of the public and the state.

In the spirit of Passover- come-early, Communications Minister Gilad Erdan is cleaning up the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA).

Erdan declared on March 6 that he would implement the recommendations of the Landes Committee which he appointed. A central part of these recommendations is that the IBA as well as Educational Television be closed and replaced with a new structure, much reduced, and with a smaller budget.

Such drastic measures were recommended in the wake of huge costs – NIS 1 billion per annum – to the tax payer as well as much dissatisfaction with the quality of programming and the professional level of the employees.

Erdan’s suggested policy has come under fire, most notably from within the IBA. The employees have understandably attacked the minister, fearing that their comfortable and inefficient work habits will have to change. They have not yet absorbed the fact that the public is no longer willing to foot the bill for their wasteful work habits.

They have consistently opposed steps aimed at streamlining and modernizing the IBA in this technological age.

But the true question is: does Israel need an IBA at all? Could there be better models to follow? We have consistently supported the demand for a public broadcasting authority. Our reasoning has been that Israel, which is a melting pot for people coming from vastly different backgrounds, needs a public-interest broadcaster. The broadcasts in English, Russian, Amharic, French, Yiddish and more are highly appreciated by many. Whenever there is a threat to the English IBA news broadcasts, Israel’s Media Watch is probably the first to receive requests from the public to help prevent the closure.

Israel is also a unique country, embattled, facing many who do not recognize its right to exist.

Its Arab-language broadcasts are an important tool in defending Israel and putting those who hate us on the defensive. Israel radio programming in Persian is also part of Israel’s line of defense against the Iranian threat.

But there are other aspects of the public broadcaster which need to be discussed. Moshe Negbi, a tenured commentator of the IBA (the only one, we should note), wrote a very informative defense of the IBA in the April 8 issue of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Seventh Eye media review Internet publication.

His article is subtitled “The Holyland Affair serves as a reminder that a dedicated and honest journalist in public broadcasting has an easier time facing corruption as compared to his counterpart in the private media.”

As we reported in this column, the Holyland affair was not brought to light by IBA journalists, but rather by Yoav Yitzchak, an independent journalist.

Negbi’s thesis is of a more general nature. He claims that although IBA journalists can sometimes find themselves facing pressure as well, they have the means to fight against it since “we are dealing with a public body, whose employees are unionized; its bosses cannot arbitrarily fire a journalist. …The Supreme Court more than once nixed the directives of a CEO or board of directors when they tried to censor criticism of the government. I myself successfully went to the courts against a decision of a radio director who wanted to stop broadcasting my program.”

It is precisely this spirit which has convinced many in Israel that it is high time to close down the Authority, without reopening it. Negbi has been presenting for over 30 years a program called “Din Udvarim” (Law and Issues) which affords him a unique platform, paid for by Israel’s citizens, to promulgate his personal views. Only at IMW’s prodding was an editor appointed to oversee Negbi’s fiefdom. Monopolies are not tolerated in the commercial world, but they are an IBA staple. Negbi is not alone. For the past six years, Keren Neubach has used her morning radio program “Seder Yom” (The Day’s Agenda) to proselytize for her socialist worldview.

Judy Nir Moses Shalom, Minister Silvan Shalom’s wife, has been presenting a Friday radio program, “This Week According to Judy,” for 15 years. Shlomo Nitzan has had a Friday literary corner for over 20 years. Geula Cohen and Eli Amir have been the co-hosts of “From Left and Right” every Thursday for over a dozen years. The defense affairs correspondent and commentator Carmela Menashe, who is proud of her hijacking of the public airwaves, who admitted she “helped” Israel evacuate Lebanon, is immovable.

The situation is not much different on the IBA’s TV programs.

The commentators don’t change. For example, every Friday evening, the left-of-center Ari Shavit, a Ha’aretz journalist, is the sole panelist and there is no one who balances his views.

Oded Shachar has been the moderator of the Politika weekly program for too many years. At the same time, the IBA displayed callous disregard for new and also female faces when, in 1998, Geula Even was dismissed to permit the return of veteran and elderly broadcaster Haim Yavin.

In the commercial world, a personality could last so long only through public support and interest. In the IBA it is not the public interest that matters but rather the self-interest of the employees of the IBA and their perception of their mandate.

A public broadcasting authority, paid for by the state’s citizens, but which considers itself beyond reproach, an authority whose most influential journalists believe that they can with impunity disobey the public’s representatives, should not be allowed to exist.

The fact that Negbi, who prides himself as a defender of democracy, does not understand that in the name of democracy he should have made an effort to assure that his voice would be balanced by other voices is another indication of the depths reached by the IBA as we know it today.

For too many years, the IBA’s employees have been operating under the motto “ask not what you can do for the people, but what the people can be made to do for you.”

One of the reasons Israel’s Media Watch was established almost 20 years ago was to try and rectify this attitude and situation.

Our work has contributed significantly to the public awareness of the lack of professionalism at the IBA and the outcry against the various authorities’ ways.

We believed that the IBA is a Zionist entity and has an incredibly important job in contributing to the Zionist ethos of this country. We believed that one should not “get rid of the baby with the bathwater.” Our optimism was based on the Zionist charter of the IBA. The present law, delineating the IBA’s tasks, reads, in part: “to reinforce the Zionist identity of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state… reflect the struggle for Jewish revival…

foster good citizenship and values of equality; strengthen the connection with Judaism and the Jewish heritage and values and deepen knowledge in these areas; foster the knowledge of the Hebrew language,” and more.

However, all of these goals, astoundingly, have been omitted in the IBA law recommended by the Landes committee.

Israel surely does not need a post-Zionist public broadcaster.

It needs a Zionist, public-service oriented broadcaster, one that understands and caters to the needs of the public and the state.

Anything else is a waste of money and should be closed down, permanently.


April 9, 2014

MEDIA COMMENT: Haredim, journalism and ethics

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:39 pm by yisraelmedad

Media Comment: Haredim, journalism and ethics


The ongoing battle between the Yated Ne’eman daily newspaper and the Mishpacha weekly is another example of the ferociousness between factions within the Haredi world.

The haredi community has always maintained an odd relationship with the media, starting already in the middle of the 19th century when the Hebrew-language press made its appearance.

At the fascinating blog Seforim, Eliezer Brodt recently published an article on the 100-year old issue of ultra-Orthodox rabbis and the practice of their reading newspapers, specifically on Shabbat. For example, he detailed that the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, among others, not only devoted time to the Hebrew newspapers of the day, but also quoted from them in various responsa pertaining to halachic decisions.

As reported by Brodt, in 1928 Rav Baruch Halevi Epstein published a book titled Mekor Baruch, approbated glowingly by Rabbi A. I. Kook, who was himself a pupil of the Netziv from Volozhin. In the book, Epstein confirmed that the Netziv read newspapers.

Mekor Baruch was translated and published in English in 1988. Yet, a few months later, the Lakewood Cheder, which distributed it, recommended that it should not be read.

The thought that a leading haredi rabbi actually read a newspaper was anathema.

Brodt, pursuing the matter, notes that the Netziv’s writings had suffered at the hands of censorship and that references to newspapers, such as HaLevanon and HaMelitz, were removed from later editions of his halachic works. Indeed, censorship is common practice in the haredi world. The late uncle of one of us (EP), Yitzchak Shimshon Lange, brought to light from old manuscripts a treatise on the Torah by Rabbi Yehuda Hahassid, who lived in Germany in the 12th and 13th century. Some of the passages in the book were not to the liking of the haredi Rabbi of Zurich, and Lange was “convinced” that he must censor the original edition and take the offending passages out.

With time it would seem that the haredi world has changed. Haredi media are flourishing, with newspapers, weekly Torah pages, Internet sites, haredi radio stations and even Internet TV. There are also designated closed forums for the exclusive use of ultra-Orthodox women, as researched by Azi Lev-On and Rivka Neriya Ben-Shahar. Haredi newspapers in Israel have special and enlarged issues for the weekends, presumably since people do read them also on Shabbat.

Yet the haredi media is very different from the general media. For one, it is heavily censored, especially when it comes to women.

This is not to say that censorship does not exist in the general media – far from it, and we have often noted how the Israeli media refrains from reporting on certain issues.

Yet, the censorship in the haredi media seems to be more severe.

It largely refrains from reporting violent or sexual crimes. It will also attempt to defend its own, sometimes going to extreme lengths in doing so. For example, as reported on the INN website, when the heads of the “Bechadrei Chadarim” haredi website were arrested on suspicion of blackmailing people, threatening them with exposure, the haredi media ignored the issue under the pretext that it did not report criminal affairs.

We have reported in this column too frequently on the abuse and stereotyping of the haredi community by the mainstream secular media. Unfortunately, the same takes place, and too often much more egregiously, in the haredi press than in the Israeli media. Recent political events have exposed the haredi media at its worst.

Anti-Semitic-style cartoons are employed to negatively portray the State of Israel, or Finance Minister Yair Lapid or the “war” waged by secular and Religious Zionist Israel against the haredi world. As reported on the Mako website back in August 2011, the Yated Ne’eman newspaper had a caricature of the Menorah – the emblem of the State of Israel – resting on a swastika.

This was not a one-time “error.” Yoni Greenstein, their caricaturist, excels at producing such high-quality images. In one of them, from January 2012, he depicts three wolves, representing the media, the law and the public, feasting on the bones of the haredi public. In the background one finds a pile of leftover bones.

When Rav Avichai Ronsky, the former chief rabbi of the IDF, wrote that the Bayit Yehudi party has more in common with Yesh Atid than with the haredim, he was attacked ferociously. The Hamodia newspaper published an opinion article by Isaac Matityahu Tennenbaum whose main thesis was that Rabbi Ronsky should be considered the equivalent of the pig. He published a whole tractate “proving” that the National Religious community act like pigs, look like pigs, and so they must be pigs.

He ends by noting that “it is good that the haredi youth now know who the Religious Zionists really are so that we will not come near them… we belong completely to the true Torah and its obligations.” In the world of Hamodia, lashon hara – defamation – is permitted.

Hatred is not only expressed toward the “outside world.” HaPeles is a haredi daily which started appearing in July 2012. It is associated with Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach and the Bnei Torah political party. It has not refrained from criticizing haredi rabbis for what it perceives as a lax attitude toward Judaism. Rabbis Aharon Leib Shteinman and Chaim Kanievskyy do not like the paper, considering it as a source of desecration of the name of the Almighty. They decreed that one must not let the paper enter one’s home, one should not aid the paper in any way, one should not advertise in it and one should let the advertisers know that they might God forbid aid the desecration of the name of God. The paper has been honored with epithets such as “the wicked shall rot.” Within the haredi world, the right of retort is unknown, from all sides.

The ongoing battle between the Yated Ne’eman daily newspaper and the Mishpacha weekly is another example of the ferociousness between factions within the haredi world, which surpasses the rivalry between Yediot Aharonot and Yisrael Hayom.

The examples considered here are the tip of the iceberg within the haredi journalistic world. A haredi journalistic code of ethics seems not to exist. Objective truth, which is denied in the post-modernist world, is replaced in the haredi media with divine truth. Just as haredi parties submit themselves to a Grand Council of Sages, their press acquiesces to a so-called Spiritual Committee. Too many journalists speak regularly to the Almighty and these discussions serve to justify their lack of respect to their fellow human beings.

At the end of the day, it is the haredi world which pays the price. Its sources of information are slanted and controlled; any haredi person who does want to know what is happening in reality has no recourse but to use the secular media. It would seem that the well known adage of Hillel the Elder, who folded the whole Torah into one sentence – what is hated by yourself don’t do onto your friend – needs to become the basis of a haredi media code of ethics.


April 2, 2014

MEDIA COMMENT: Israel’s pride

Posted in Uncategorized at 11:00 pm by yisraelmedad

Media Comment: Israel’s pride

Israel is not proud that a former prime minister will most likely go to jail. But it should pride itself on idealists such as Yoav Yitzchak.

Israel is a democracy, as evidenced by the verdict against a former prime minister, who will now be sentenced for accepting bribes while in office. The legal process which in recent years brought to justice a former president, a former prime minister and a former finance minister, is an indication of moral corruption in too many people in high places. It is nothing to be proud of. In a truly democratic country, where freedom of speech and thought are more important than petty politics, such behavior might not have taken place. An open, truth-driven press could have prevented it.

Indeed, in the case of Ehud Olmert, one brave journalist, Yoav Yitzchak, had for years been warning of and exposing Olmert’s misdeeds in print. It was on May 10, 2006, a couple of months after the elections in Israel, that Yitzchak, in a press conference, attacked then-minister Olmert for the financial transactions behind his purchase of an apartment on Jerusalem’s posh Cremieux Street. Olmert at that time was nearing the pinnacle of his political power, yet Yitzchak had no fear.

Yitzchak’s involvement in the Holyland affair started in 1996. He exposed the fact that Hillel Charney, the owner of the 120 dunams (30 acres) of Holyland real estate (and now convicted for bribery), received a fictitious assessment of the value of his property.

Charney wanted to transfer ownership from the “Holyland Corporation,” a foreign company which he controlled, to an Israeli company also under his control. Such a transfer could lead to substantial property and profit taxes, so a lower assessment of the property value would reduce the tax burden.

Two assessors estimated the value at a bit over $10 million, while realistic estimates were much higher. The old Holyland Hotel still existed at that time.

It took six more years before the two assessors were found guilty by the assessors’ ethics committee for their fictitious assessments.

On July 28, 2008, Yitzchak exposed for the first time that then-prime minister Olmert had received bribes in connection with the Holyland project. It took another year before the police, after receiving further information from Yitzchak, corroborated by the state’s witness Shmuel Duchner, decided to open an investigation. The rest is now history.

Was Yitzchak alone in his exposés? No. In 2002, the local Jerusalem paper Kol Ha’ir severely criticized Olmert, especially for his frequent flights abroad. But this was not the media norm.

It is no secret that for years, Yediot Aharonot was a staunch supporter of Olmert. It is no surprise, but sad to note, that Mordechai Gilat, Yediot’s prime investigative reporter at that time, did not report anything about Olmert’s misdeeds, even though he later claimed he knew about them already in 2007.

It was only after Gilat moved to Yisrael Hayom that he started attacking Olmert. In May 2008 he related to various accusations against Olmert, but did not mention the Holyland project.

Another prominent journalist who took a stand against Olmert is Dan Margalit. When Olmert was found not guilty for his actions in the Rishontours and Talansky affairs, Margalit called upon the attorney-general on July 11, 2012, to appeal the case before the Supreme Court. Margalit commented: “Who believes that Ehud Olmert did not know about the manipulations his secretaries did with the airline tickets?” In the aftermath of Olmert’s conviction, Margalit took Olmert to task: “Head of a crime gang” was his headline in Yisrael Hayom this past Tuesday. But Margalit’s role as a journalist in this whole affair was a very minor one, if that.

Margalit was a very close friend of Olmert for 35 years. After Olmert became prime minister, in the wake of the Second Lebanon War, Margalit decided to cut off the relationship.

In an interview with Dorit Keren-Zvi published on February 16, 2007, in Haaretz, Margalit explained that he “understood then that the war was being managed incorrectly.

And even before I wrote about that in the paper, the people in his closest circle heard me say that in my estimation he has to go.

This is not the job for him. Not everyone is cut out to be prime minister. I think, not with hatred but the opposite, with much love, that Ehud Olmert failed in the Second Lebanon War.”

So Margalit did not part ways with Olmert because of the latter’s corrupt ways. In fact, Margalit claimed in that same interview that “I miss him so much. There’s no way around it – I just love him. You know, there isn’t a day on which I get home and before putting the key in the lock, I think about the conversation I am about to have with Ehud. And then I remember. Abruptly, I tell myself: It’s impossible.

That’s what I miss the most.”

Journalist Mati Golan, writing in the Globes newspaper on March 12, 2013, claims Margalit left Olmert since he was denied the job of Olmert’s chief of staff, which he very much desired. We don’t know the truth, though one thing is certain: Margalit failed as an investigative journalist. He should have known, given Olmert’s rich history, that Olmert most probably was a crook, and should have attempted to expose this.

Today, Margalit speaks loudly about Olmert’s misdeeds in Yisrael Hayom, the newspaper which staunchly defends Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Olmert’s nemesis. One could commend him for realizing – rather belatedly – who his close friend was.

Yitzchak writes that “Dan Margalit is one of the best journalists in Israel. He is professional, curious and brave. He understands things.

He knows very well what the job of a journalist and public figure is in a democracy.” We believe, though, that his position on Olmert would be much more authentic had it come during the many years he worked for Ma’ariv.

Gilat and Margalit are just the tip of the iceberg of the failings of Israel’s senior media in the Olmert affair. For years, Yediot Aharonot did all it could to defend Olmert. The tireless efforts of Yitzchak bore fruit and the criminals will, after many years, pay for their misdeeds.

There were many other important players in this story, such as the Justice Ministry’s state prosecutor, Moshe Lador, the attorneys who prepared the case and the police investigators.

But had the media done its job from the very beginning, maybe Olmert and his friends would have understood that crime does not pay. Or, perhaps an informed public could also have acted, or voted differently.

Israel is not proud that a former prime minister will most likely go to jail. But it should pride itself on idealists such as Yoav Yitzchak.

In the aftermath of his being awarded the Israeli Prize for Media Criticism by Israel’s Media Watch, we wrote in The Jerusalem Post on October 10, 2002: “the award was given for his unique role as a journalistic establishment, for his firm stand against the giants of the Israeli media and for his important contributions to the public discourse on media and journalism.” It would be most fitting if he were to receive the next Israel Prize for Journalism.